Kelly Magyarics (right) during guided tasting. Photo Credit @EdRode
Recently, I headed to Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of the entire production (12 million cases annually) of all of Jack Daniel’s whiskey offerings, which currently include No. 7, Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, Rye, Sinatra Select, Fire, Honey and Winter Heat. Eight members of the media were invited to partake—for the first time—in Camp Jack, a two-day immersion program about all things whiskey.
Camp Jack sessions had been previously reserved for employees who influence sales and marketing around the world. (More than fifty percent of Jack Daniel’s is sold internationally in 160 countries.) Two hundred and four employees have “graduated” from Camp Jack so far, during a total of eighteen sessions held once or twice per year.
“It's our hope that our coworkers come away from Camp Jack with a greater appreciation, understanding and excitement for what a truly special whiskey-making tradition they're a part of and a personal sense of what makes Jack Daniel's what it is – something unlike any whiskey in the world,” explains Nelson Eddy, Jack Daniel's Historian. “In short, we'd like them to walk away with their own Jack Daniel's story.”
Mission accomplished. We heard nuggets from Eddy about how a slave named Nearest Green, owned by Reverend Call who took in Jack after his mother died, taught Jack how to distill whiskey at a young age, and how Lynchburg’s plentiful spring water—low in iron, rich in minerals—led Jack Daniel to the area. (In Nashville, we sampled Nearest Green’s namesake cocktail at 404 Kitchen; created by bartender Travel Brazil, it combines Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey with Laird’s Apple Brandy, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Bacon and citrus-infused honey.)
Jack Daniel’s iconic black label and bottle shape has become synonymous with rock and roll, and it’s also easy to consider their bestselling product as something that’s ubiquitous and readily available on every store shelf and back bar, but Camp Jack students learned that it wasn’t always that way. Frank Sinatra’s public endorsement led to a Jack Daniel’s shortage and allocation lasting from 1956 to 1979. (The company’s Sinatra Select is a high-end homage to Old Blue Eyes, aged in barrels that have deep grooves in their staves to impart more of an oak influence, and bottled at 90 proof.)
Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, only the seventh employee to hold that title, spent a day with us, offering us a guided tasting of the portfolio, as well as barrel samples of an upcoming Rye aging in one of their 86 warehouses. Since the Rye’s mash bill includes 70% rye, 18% corn and 12% malt, I expected signature peppery notes, but it actually had an appealing sweet note, and a smooth finish—I can’t wait to try it once it’s bottled.
Of course, no visit to a Tennessee whiskey distillery would be complete without a demonstration of the Lincoln County Process, which steeps whiskey through charcoal before barrel ageing in order to remove bitter notes and render a softer, smoother spirit. (Gentleman’s Jack is actually charcoal-filtered before and after its time in the barrel.) Jack Daniel’s spends $1 million every year on sugar maple charcoal, which is burned three days per week, and three batches per day.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was that despite its massive production size, Jack Daniel’s has the feel of a small batch, artisanal distillery, with an attention to detail and employee pride that you don’t often see at this scale. “Camp Jack was created to give our coworkers around the world a greater knowledge and appreciation for the Jack Daniel's story and time-honored whiskey-making tradition by involving them in the craft of making whiskey,” notes Eddy, who goes on to add, “we also call it Jack Daniel's immersion…but we don't mean that literally.”